After years of ignoring the exploding market for pickup trucks, Honda finally in 2006 brought out its first pickup, the Ridgeline. Rather than develop a V-8 engine and a body-on-frame chassis from scratch, Honda adapted the unibody underpinnings of its Pilot SUV to create an unconventional pickup, but one that nonetheless would meet the needs of a large number of pickup buyers.
Four-wheel drive is standard. The lone cab configuration has four real doors. Passenger space both up front and in back in generous. The cargo bed is only five feet long but it's more than four feet wide, so building materials can lie flat. The towing capacity of 5000 pounds can't approach the max capacities of full-size pickups (which are constantly one-upping each other) but is sufficient for most recreational towing.
Honda also added a few clever touches. The most significant is a standard, lockable, under-floor trunk below the cargo bed, providing a secure, outside-the-cab place to stow luggage. And there's a two-way tailgate that drops down like a conventional tailgate or can swing open like a door, providing closer reach-in access to whatever's in the bed and making it easier to hose out debris.
The reaction among pickup buyers has been a collective yawn. Sales, which were never great to begin with, lately have been in a freefall. Volume dropped by half from 2008 to 2010 and then fell another 40 percent last year. In fact, a few months ago, Honda felt compelled to post on its media web site an open letter from the company's head to truck product planning, denying rumors that the Ridgeline would be dropped and insisting that a pickup truck will remain part of the company's portfolio.
For 2012, Honda gave the Ridgeline a bit of attention, coaxing another 1 mpg out of the powertrain and adding the Sport trim level.
At $30,805, the latter is a $745 step up over the base model. It adds a bit of much-needed flash outside, mostly with black-finish 18-inch wheels. There's also a black grille with a unique texture, fog lights, and black surrounds for the head- and taillights. Inside, the Sport gets a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, an aux input jack, heavy-duty rubber floor mats, and rear privacy glass.
The fuel economy boost brings the 2012 Honda Ridgeline up to 15/21 mpg (city/highway), but that's no more economical than a Ford F-150 4x4 with the Ecoboost V-6.
Clearly, none of the 2012 changes is likely to reverse the Ridgeline's fortunes. That's too bad, because the Ridgeline is in many ways far more pleasant to drive and easier to live with than a full-size four-door pickup. Being two feet shorter, and with a four-foot smaller turning circle, it's far less hassle to park and maneuver. The Ridgeline also doesn't require the huge climb up that regular 4x4 pickups do.
Having the cab and the cargo bed integrated as a single unit makes for a more rigid body structure and thus the Honda is free of the shudder over bumps that plagues typical pickups. With an independent rear suspension, there's no axle hop. The 3.5-liter V-6 is no powerhouse, at 250 hp, but it has enough muscle to get the Ridgeline moving, and four-wheel drive eliminates any torque steer. The transmission is only a five-speed, but the ratios are well spaced and the gearbox doesn't do a lot of hunting.
The Sport interior is pretty basic, with lots of hard plastic, and cheap-feeling cloth upholstery (why not vinyl?). There really are no factory options, so buyers looking for more niceties, like leather or navigation, have to move up a more deluxe trim level. In typical Honda fashion, the switchgear is very clear; cabin stowage is plentiful. The flip up rear-seat cushion makes it easier to carry bulky items inside the cabin. The worst aspect of the Ridgeline interior is the somewhat awkward driving position, with an intrusive and strangely positioned dead pedal.
Apparently, though, none of that matters much. Pickup buyers like their trucks big, and unless Honda can make the Ridgeline a more compelling alternative -- perhaps by giving it a clear advantage in fuel economy -- it appears likely to remain an outlier.